Phoenix is a very French band. The Louvre is a very French museum. As bewildering as it may sound, it seemed inevitable for the indie-pop quartet to connect themselves to such a cultural behemoth this French. After all, their most popular song references the construction of the Eiffel Tower at Paris’ first Exposition Universelle. Viewed through this lens, the group’s seventh record, Alpha Zulu, presents itself as a culmination. They may have already headlined Coachella in 2013. They may have an excellent, career-spanning oral history penned by the venerable music critic Laura Snapes. Phoenix making an album inside the Louvre, though, feels like a pro forma apogee.
Guitarists/brothers Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai and bassist/keyboardist Deck d’Arcy sheltered themselves in an empty, nocturnal Louvre during lockdown to make Alpha Zulu. Isolated in the beatific Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the three friends found themselves surrounded by gaudy sculptures and world-famous paintings. “I was a bit afraid, when there was too much beauty around us, that to create something could be a bit hard,” Mazzalai said in press materials, speaking to the Versailles band’s initial trepidation. “But it was the opposite: We couldn’t stop producing music.” Especially once vocalist Thomas Mars joined them in early 2021, writing kicked into full gear. It marks their first new music since the death of their frequent producer and de facto fifth member Philippe Zdar, and it’s the first album they’ve produced entirely themselves.
For a band who are so heavily associated with the festival-indie boom of the late aughts and early ’10s, Phoenix’s career arc has been riveting to watch. Countless other bands have tried and failed to emulate them, but they have persevered. They’ve adapted their idiosyncratic sound to suit various environs, whether that’s the glossy sheen of Bankrupt! or the gelato-obsessed Italo-disco of Ti Amo. Alpha Zulu, by contrast, doesn’t quite stake a claim in any single style. Aside from its recording setting, there’s nothing unifying about its sonic landscape, as it constantly shifts from one mood to another throughout its 10 tracks. It never settles, which is occasionally a defect but, for the most part, a strength.
These stark vagaries, on a deeper listen, may resonate as the album’s identity itself. To put it another way, its lack of focus is its actual focus. In a recent GQ profile, Mars expressed a similar perspective. The frontman described Alpha Zulu as “full of ideas that were really spread out and shouldn’t belong together,” likening it to their 2000 debut, United. That comparison makes sense just by listening to “Funky Squaredance” solo.
Consequently, it’s an album rife with contradictions and anomalies, but that makes it entertaining, too. Take the title track, a song featuring Mars’ best caterwauling Isaac Brock impression that contrasts the debonair cool Phoenix usually exhibits. Directly following it is “Tonight,” which sees the quartet putting on the nostalgia goggles to resemble their Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix iteration. Its chorus’ guitar line evokes classics like “Armistice” and “Lasso,” and Phoenix double down on the sheer Big Indie of it all with an Ezra Koenig cameo, the first time a guest vocalist has ever been featured on a Phoenix song. Within its first two tracks, Alpha Zulu establishes itself as an album that defies taxonomy. The result is as jarring as it is rapturous.
In some ways, this record plays like a victory lap. Phoenix know they aren’t vacuous festival filler like many of their radio-centric contemporaries were in their heyday. They understand they’ve built a loyal following that recognizes their craft, and Easter eggs abound on Alpha Zulu. There’s a sly “1901” reference in the second verse of “Alpha Zulu,” (“I must have died at 51 in 1953”—you do the math), and the pentatonic synth loop from “Chloroform” and “Drakkar Noir” resurfaces on “Season 2.” “After Midnight” summons the swung ebullience of “Consolation Prizes” and “Long Distance Call.” Nonetheless, there are plenty of new ideas Phoenix showcase here, too.
Centerpiece “Winter Solstice” is as aloof and frigid as its name implies. It’s also the only track on Alpha Zulu that Mazzalai, Brancowitz and d’Arcy didn’t record with their vocalist in person. Mars, at the time in Napa Valley, received a file from his bandmates, who urged him to record his lyrics as a stream of consciousness. Mars has always embraced an enigmatic writing style, and “Winter Solstice” is no outlier. He curled up in the fetal position with a microphone and recorded his take. “Why open your eyes to go to bed? / Drive straight to the ocean / And see what we won’t find out / Even the righteous beheaded their loved ones,” Mars utters over icy synths and a subdued, pulsating kick drum. It might be Phoenix’s darkest song in their two-decade-plus career.
Many of Alpha Zulu’s lyrics read like abstract puzzles, a practice Mars has embraced since Phoenix’s inception. “Whenever you explain lyrics—not only am I really bad at this, but when [a lyric] raises more questions than giving answers, it doesn’t ruin the mystique. It’s just more interesting to me,” Mars told GQ. Regardless, this has never been a band where even its most ardent fans sing back every word at shows. It’s probably more common to find people hesitantly mouthing whatever they think the lyrics are. For instance, I recently learned the chorus of “1901” goes “Fold it,” not “Falling.” To quote Sonic Adventure 2, you live and learn.
What matters most about Phoenix is how they’ve managed to evolve and endure. Though some listeners may argue that this group is past their prime, that’s not entirely true. Yes, their most well-known tracks stem from the Wolfgang era. But this is still an active, thriving band who have managed to find new modes of musical expression that are consistently compelling. On Alpha Zulu alone, they explore minor-key techno (“All Eyes on Me”), synth-pop revivalism (“Tonight”) and jaunty pop-rock (“After Midnight”), to name a few examples. As a whole, it may feel unfocused, but it genuinely sounds like these guys are having fun, and that vicarious joy and friendship is palpable. Alpha Zulu may not be the best Phoenix album, but it is another reminder of their artistic stability and growth, a genuine triumph for a band with seven albums in tow.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. He has contributed to MTV News, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN and others. Follow him on Twitter @grantsharpies.